Havana circa December 2011 feels similar: we may be running on fumes, but at least we’re still running.
But that’s today. Other days, Havana hops with energy and enthusiasm and drive, where the theme song is instead ‘How do you like it? How do you like it? More, more, more’ – more millennial and hip, more sophisticated and noteworthy. This fuel injection comes from new economic regulations permitting private businesses, the buying and selling of cars and homes, and relaxed travel rules by Obama for Cubans in the USA wanting to visit family on the island (see note 1).
So how Havana feels largely depends on the day you measure her. And your outlook, what you see and experience, and who you talk to. Just like anywhere else, I suppose (if you’re paying close enough attention), except this place is like nowhere else. The contradictions are starker, more frequent, funnier.
Here are some that have caught my attention recently:
The Limousine/Ox-Drawn Cart
When Cubans of a certain means and bent get married, the bride and groom tour around town in a convertible festooned with satin bows, the novia perched atop the back seat waving to passersby while the driver lays on the horn (some honk out the wedding march, others the Godfather theme). But a few days ago, I crossed paths with the newest fad of the nouveau riche: the black tinted stretch limo (there’s only one) rented from Rex Autos covered in the same satin bows. There was no horn honking, however, and no visible bride – defeating entirely the purpose of showing off to plebes and passersby. I guess the thrill of a limo ride is reward enough for some and it did turn heads, including mine.
A short time later, I waited as two oxen were maneuvered with coos and stick by their expert handler. They carted behind them the water tank (known as the pipa in these parts), that makes the rounds of neighborhoods without municipal water. The pipa is the savior of all those homes and families which only have water un día sí, un día no (or even more infrequently).
Stretch limos and oxen carts; conspicuous consumption and water shortages: Es Cuba, my friends.
Penthouse Too Big/House Too Small
Estrella lives in a propiedad horizontal – a floor-through apartment. And it’s a penthouse no less. These huge, luxurious flats are found throughout Vedado high-rises and are more reminiscent of Manhattan than Havana. They usually feature phenomenal city and sea views but are also a pain in the ass – hard to clean and maintain, they’re also a real liability during hurricanes when their height, exposure, and plate glass windows put them in direct path and danger of the elements. For these reasons, Estrella is looking to permutar her penthouse for something closer to the ground, a more manageable home in short.
Contrast this with my friend Gloria – 68 and a spitfire who has dedicated her life’s work to helping the revolution work, she shares a bedroom with her 6-year old grandson and 10-year old granddaughter. If you know Cuba and the housing crisis we’re in, you know multi-generational sleeping arrangements are common. Except in Gloria’s case, she not only shares the room with her grandkids, but a double bed with the boy to boot. Sadly, this is also not terribly uncommon.
Both Estrella and Gloria are equally revolutionary and politically committed; this too, is Cuba, dear readers.
Chocolate-filled Churros/Pallid Pizza
As the new economic regulations gel, Cubans are figuring ways to live with the Gordian Knot that is capitalism. Folks with money to invest and a head for business are differentiating their products and services – and making money hand over fist as a result. The full-service car wash that everyone is talking about is one example of entrepreneurial pluck and vision, as is the nearby scuba school. Since I have no car and don’t dive, these are simply a curiosity for me. Not so the cafeteria selling chocolate-filled churros; jamaliche that I am, this development piqued my interest. Using a machine imported from Ecuador, these folks crank out a fried, filled sweet treat that drives Cubans gaga – and all for the nice price of 3 pesos (less than 15 cents). Also taking the city by storm is the burger and pizza joint with one of those inflatable playhouses kids love so much in the yard. While the kids jump and play, their parents nosh and drink, dropping a bundle in the process. According to my sources, this cafeteria is netting 1500 pesos a day (around $62 – not bad for a startup here).
Meanwhile, block upon block of new cafeterias sell the same forgettable hot dogs and egg sandwiches, bread spread with cloying mayo or croquettes. Some of these places serve terrible food – tasteless or cold, on day old bread or presented to customers just after the flies have been swatted away. Last week, I stopped by a new cafeteria in my neighborhood selling the smallest, palest, saddest pizza I’ve ever seen. With cheese congealing (despite being placed beneath an office lamp), the pathetic pizza sold at Rapidos around town look delectable in comparison. No wonder the government estimates 80% of these new businesses will fail within a year.
The contradictions abound caballeros. Every human and society has them. But we’ve recently had many complexities introduced into our reality here on the island which are deepening these contradictions. It’s a confusing time – anxiety-ridden once you scratch the surface – but it seems these complexities have also sparked a new line of critical thinking and reflection.
Over several visits with different friends and families over the past week, discussions have turned on the theory and opinion that what we’re experiencing today can largely be chalked up to the Special Period – that time in the 90s when the Cuban economy crashed and burned, threatening to take the Revolution with it. So that wouldn’t come to pass, people tightened their belts, took a hold of their bootstraps, and sallied forth. But at a cost. These conversations didn’t focus on what the new economy is or isn’t doing for our present, but rather the hard times of the past and how they eroded values, placed the pursuit of things over relationships, and planted the seeds of individual survival over the collective.
“We used to live here so naturally.”
“People changed overnight.”
“It was 180° turn, fast and dizzying.”
These are some of the comments made to me recently about those trying years, but in relation to our current situation. Interesting food for thought and worth recalling, 20 years hence, as we contemplate the changes in Cuba circa 2011.
1. You should see what folks are bringing in from abroad to start their families’ businesses here – everything from car parts and coolers to snorkel masks and jungle gyms. Permissions for Cuban families from the USA to travel here is being threatened by political (but powerful, ojo) dinosaurs in Congress. Although it seems Obama isn’t going to let this happen, I encourage all Here is Havana readers to keep the pressure on to lift both the travel ban and the blockade.